Rugby: Maori All Blacks gearing up for big Munster clash

By Campbell Burnes

New Zealand Maori All Blacks winger James Lowe will be up against some familiar faces when his side plays Munster. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand Maori All Blacks winger James Lowe will be up against some familiar faces when his side plays Munster. Photo / Brett Phibbs

History and passion always figure highly when the conversations switches to Munster rugby.

The history is the easily recalled part: Munster were, in 1978, the first Irish side to beat the All Blacks, famously, 12-0 at Limerick's Thomond Park. The passion of their fans is memorable, and Rua Tipoki, who played for the province with great success less than a decade ago, often waxes lyrical about the Munster fans.

Now the former Maori All Blacks skipper will be returning to a place he calls his second home this weekend as the Maori face Munster for the first time.

The match is set against the backdrop of the tragic, sudden death of Munster coach and legend Anthony Foley last month and of course Ireland's historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last weekend.

Maori assistant coach Carl Hoeft and wing James Lowe, who scored two tries in the 54-7 shellacking of the USA Eagles, are fully aware of the history and possible hype surrounding clashes between Munster and New Zealand teams.

"I've been here before with a French side (Castres). They get a lot of energy from the crowd and they are a different team playing at home. It's a great experience with this crowd and I'm sure the boys will enjoy that," says Hoeft.

He knows Munster will have their forward strengths, but equally the Maori are coming off a fine win where the pack pummelled the Eagles.

"We got a good platform for the backs. Our scrum and lineout operated extremely with the short preparation. Munster are a very good side with a very strong set-piece, so we have to combat that with a couple of plans."

Lowe's pace and hefty left boot were used to good effect in Chicago.

"I remember a few years ago when Doug Howlett did the haka back to the All Blacks (2008). I watched that live and it's something I don't think we've seen since," says Lowe.

Howlett, Tipoki and Jeremy Manning performed a haka before their Munster teammates to the All Blacks before the 2008 fixture, which the All Blacks won 18-16 thanks to a late Joe Rokocoko try.

Howlett himself was seen celebrating with former Ireland, Lions and Munster lock Paul O'Connell in Chicago last weekend.

Munster may be missing as many as 10 first-choice players, who were training with Ireland this week, while the Maori will likely not have access to their four All Blacks as last week, as they are in Rome preparing to face Italy.

But there are two New Zealanders in the Munster line-up. Former Crusaders first five and 2010 New Zealand Under 20 captain Tyler Bleyendaal kicked four conversions in last weekend's 33-0 win over Ospreys, which lifted them to second on the Guinness PRO12 table, while former Chiefs and Taranaki hooker Rhys Marshall debuted off the bench.

Former All Blacks midfielder Francis Saili is still out as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

"When I was growing up I played with and against Tyler. He's a very good player who controls the match and has a good kicking game, so we'll have to shut him down," says Lowe.

"I played many years with Rugger (Marshall) at the Chiefs. We're the same age."

Some may say Bleyendaal, still just 26, left New Zealand rugby too early, but in truth the emergence of Richie Mo'unga means he has hardly been missed by Canterbury and the Crusaders.

The decision not to award Marshall another Chief contract hastened his decision to sign with Munster after the Mitre 10 Cup.

Kickoff from Thomond Park is at 8.30am Saturday morning (NZ time).

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